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September 27, 2007

Clarence and Paul

By Christopher Angus

Clarence at book signing

Clarence at Book Signing, 2002

Paul at Everton Falls, 1985

Paul at Everton Falls, 1985

They were peers, members of the same generation, giants in the Adirondack pantheon. Clarence Petty and Paul Jamieson seemed not only of a different time but also of an entirely different character from the commonplace of today. Iconic figures, they had no equals in their specific realms. With Paul’s passing recently at the age of 103, we may soon be forced to contemplate an Adirondack future without either of them.

The similarities of age and interest in the Adirondacks shared by both men were dwarfed by their differences. Clarence was a native, the dirt-poor son of a guide and cook, who began life in a shanty on the shores of Upper Saranac Lake. In 1915, at the age of ten, he was already in demand as a guide, along with his brother Bill in the wilderness outside Tupper Lake.

Paul grew up middle-class, his father deputy Secretary of State in Des Moines. Raised midst the flat corn fields of Iowa, he did not even see uneven ground until his twenties. But once he arrived in Canton, N.Y. to teach English at St. Lawrence University at the age of 26 in 1929, proximity to the Adirondacks drew him in like a bee to honey, or perhaps more appropriately, like a black fly to bare skin.

While Clarence had little religious upbringing, Paul struggled with the fundamentalism of his youth. Both came to view the natural world as their true religion. Clarence was a hands-on, nuts and bolts kind of guy. He loved machinery and the excitement of flying. He never flinched from confrontation when it was necessary and spoke out in public forums often in defense of his beloved Adirondacks. Some of his greatest contributions came in the slog and drudgery of committee work, and he won the respect of men much more highly educated. Paul was bookish, a true intellectual, a man who eschewed confrontation for the most part. His impact came primarily from his writings, which also included many, many letters to bureaucrats and politicians. He detested committee work and avoided it wholeheartedly.

Both men believed in the participatory aspects of democracy. Writing letters in order to influence people and policy was de rigueur. Clarence chose to compose his on a 1934 Remington typewriter that grew so out of date in later years that he had to have someone custom cut ribbons to fit the thing. Paul used a typewriter too, one somewhat more up to date, but he also penned beautiful letters in script. Together, they were professional thorns in the side of generations of legislators, politicians and bureaucrats.

Paul on the Oswegatchie, 1980

Paul on the Oswegatchie, 1980

Like many in the Adirondack region, I owe a considerable debt to both men for their shining example, their friendship and their unflinching generosity to one so far removed, more than two generations, from their own formative years.

I have no memory of my first meeting with Paul. I was almost certainly a baby, brought round by my father, a colleague of Paul’s in the English Department at St. Lawrence University, for purposes of knee bouncing and braggadocio. I undoubtedly encountered him often while growing up. But his first real insertion into my world, came, as it did for so many, with the discovery of his writings, specifically, Adirondack Canoe Waters: North Flow, published in 1975 when I was 25 years old. My first edition of that classic of canoe guides is today tattered, the pages dog-eared and filled with notes, the cover stained with the spills of a campfire meal—the way Paul would have liked to see it—and signed by the author.

As I began to discover the upper reaches of the Oswegatchie, Grasse and Raquette Rivers, I was so bold one day as to stop by Paul’s home on Jay St. in Canton to ask his advice before setting out. I can still remember how nervous I was that first time. What questions could I ask that he hadn’t answered a thousand times before? How could I justify wasting his time? Wouldn’t he look down on my inexperience and obvious naiveté. Well. Of course not. He was clearly delighted at being consulted, invited me in and asked where I planned to go, offered suggestions and even consulted his own maps. Little did he know how much of his time this initial generosity to me was going to cost him in the years to come. Nor would he have cared.

When, in the 1980s, I was cited for trespass on the South Branch of the Grass River by a local hunting club, Paul caught fire. He had championed the cause of reopening Adirondack rivers since 1970. He helped us research our defense, hoping for a decision that would set precedent. He encouraged me to run the river again, lending his own Kevlar canoe, which was fortunate, since it was August and river levels were low. We spent a long day shoving that boat down fifteen miles of the bony Grasse.

Clarence on western climbing trip, 1929

Clarence on western climbing trip, 1929

My first meeting with Clarence came much later in his life. Though I have a vague memory of talking to him for a couple of minutes at an ADK potluck supper when Clarence was probably in his early eighties, he was eighty-eight before I really spent any time with him. I was invited by Adirondack Explorer publisher Dick Beamish to go along with him and Clarence and several others on an all-day paddle on the Raquette River. Our purpose was to at least paddle past the Follensby Pond outlet. At the time, New York State was negotiating to purchase the fourteen thousand acre tract with historic Follensby Pond, site of the famous Philosopher’s Camp, where Emerson, Lowell, Stillman and others spent two weeks communing with nature in 1858. That famous outing was the first real instance of men actually going into the Adirondacks solely for the purpose of getting in touch with nature.

For the first time, I was immersed in Clarence’s warm and intoxicating personality. We launched across the street from his Coreys Road home, at a boat launch Clarence had given to the state and proceeded down Stony Creek ponds and on down the Raquette River. I kept close to his canoe, for I wanted to see how someone who had paddled canoes—and rowed guideboats—for over eighty years, handled his craft. He was masterful, of course, paddling with a relaxed and fluid motion that he could clearly keep up all day long. Clarence paddled the way a colleague once described how he walked through the forest: “as if he had ball bearings on the soles of his shoes.” Ball bearings on a canoe seem even more unlikely. But the principle was the same. Clarence’s movements were effortless.

At one point, we were beset by a ferocious thunderstorm on a part of the river where we could not put ashore, so we had to ride it out. I remember Clarence pulling up the hood of his garishly colored blue Gortex raincoat. Earlier in the day, he had apologized for the color, saying it had been a gift, so he had to use it. Then he paddled steadily as the thunder crashed and the rain came down in sheets. At one point, drenched and miserably unhappy myself, I peered over at him as the water funneled off the hood of his jacket and was astonished to see that he was smiling. What better than to be out in the middle of the Adirondack wilderness in a ferocious storm? His apparent glee was reminiscent of John Muir, who a century ago climbed to the top of a Douglas Fir in just such a storm and reveled as the winds blew him in frightening maelstroms of motion.

Barely thirty minutes later, the storm clouds cleared, the sun came out and we stopped for lunch on a sandy bank. Clarence regaled us with stories of his youth, guiding as a boy, working for the CCC and fighting forest fires. I realized then that he was a wonderful story teller, the best sort, one with stories worth listening to. That understanding became important when, several years later, I was asked to write his biography. How could anyone who loved the Adirondacks not want to spend time listening to those incredible stories?

Clarence was ninety-two when I began to work on his biography. Paul was then ninety-five. Somehow, I had grown close to two of the greatest Adirondack figures of any generation. Defying the odds, they were both still vigorous, still mentally acute, still intensely connected to the Adirondacks and to the many controversies then, and perhaps always, raging.

Paul at Chimney Mountain, 1979

Paul at Chimney Mountain, 1979

Clarence on Giant Mountain, 1975

Clarence on Giant Mountain, 1975

Yet their connection to each other often seemed tenuous. They rarely met or interacted. So far as I am aware, there is no photo of the two men together, something I attempted to remedy in later years but without success. But such things were not terribly important to either man. They respected one another’s devotion to the region. I never heard a negative word from either about the other.

There will be others to take their place. There will always be champions to protect the Adirondacks. But the generations of men and women to come who take on the new challenges could do worse than to remember when there were two giants in the wilderness.

Article copyright © 2007, Christopher Angus. Photographs of Clarence Petty from the collection of Christopher Angus. Photographs of Paul Jamieson from the collection of Duncan Cutter.

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